Even before Tuesday’s announcement that Clippers forward Kawhi Leonard had undergone surgery to repair a partially torn ACL in his right knee — the result of a nothing bump in Game 4 of the Western Conference semifinals — L.A.’s offseason, adorned by salary cap restrictions, five free agents and two stars with player options (Leonard and Serge Ibaka), promised to be one of the more chaotic in the league.
Once the chaos settled though, it was generally presumed that, no matter who came or went, the Clippers would again be a top contender in the West so long as they had Paul George and a healthy Kawhi Leonard. The two stars, who joined the team before the 2019 season, would have another year of experience together to draw from, and their coach, Ty Lue, would have an even better grasp of their chemistry and respective roles.
But oh what a difference a day makes.
With the Clippers announcing no timetable for Leonard’s return and realistic estimates sidelining him for at least nine months — not to mention the Clippers will still need to put aside, at minimum, $36 million for him to stay, which he is expected to do — Lue and the Clippers may have to pull multiple rabbits out of multiple hats to get anywhere near the success they saw in 2021.
Diminishes L.A.’s Ability to Lure Free Agents
At the moment, the closest thing to a sure bet for the Clippers is George. In December, he signed a 4-year, $176 million extension, and the 11-year veteran has talked publicly about wanting to retire in his hometown of Los Angeles.
This seems evermore possible in the afterglow of a regular season in which George was named Third-Team All-NBA and was at his most confident and capable in the Clippers postseason, joining Bird, Barkley, Drexler, Duncan, and James as the only players in NBA history with at least 500 points, 180 rebounds, and 100 assists in a single playoff run. Though George’s numbers were obviously boosted by Leonard’s injury, they nonetheless spoke to his durability and resilience.
But while it doesn’t appear George will be leaving anytime soon, there’s no telling what will happen with several of his teammates. The influence of the Leonard injury could be significant.
Prior to the Leonard announcement, the Clippers were reported as looking to upgrade a few positions, primarily at point guard, but with next to no money for traditional free agency and no controllable first-round draft picks till 2027, the Clippers could only hope to entice a free agent and his team into co-signing on a sign-and trade. The pitch would’ve been strong: the player is offered a very legitimate shot at a title, and the team has something to show for a guy who was going to leave anyway.
The same player incentive goes for L.A.’s own free agents, guys like Reggie Jackson and Nicolas Batum, who, strictly speaking, the Clippers can’t afford, but who could be convinced to stay at a discount if a title was in the offing.
Leonard not playing next season, however, removes that incentive almost entirely (at least in the short-term) as there are only a handful of players who have the impact of Leonard. Most free agents would prefer to go to a contender, so they may be leery of a Clippers team without their First-Team All-NBA forward who gobbles up about 31% of the salary cap. It also means that Clippers who might’ve otherwise been traded away, could stay put and perhaps see more minutes.
On the flip side, guys like Jackson and Batum, their vocal appreciation for the organization and its fans aside, may see no reason to pass up a financial win in a different city for diminished title chances.
Just Staying Competitive Could Mean Waving Goodbye
The trouble is, if the Clippers still intend to go far even without Leonard, they will feel greater pressure to add valuable players through, yes, sign-and-trades. If the Clippers could just re-sign Leonard and willfully take their lumps this season, things would be simpler. But franchises far over the cap and their fanbases tend to grow more expectant, not less, following playoff success. And trading assets without knowing when or how Leonard will return could be problematic. What was once seen as enhancement to a very strong team, suddenly becomes a risky gamble just to stay competitive.
The Clippers do have assets, if that’s the route they go.
24-year-old Ivica Zubac, who ably took over starting duties for Ibaka after his injury and is under contract through 2023, is often mentioned as a potential trade piece, as is veteran forward Marcus Morris, who had the second-highest percentage from three this season and was a willing bruiser inside when the Clippers went small.
Guards Patrick Beverley and Luke Kennard are also regularly mentioned in trade rumors — Beverley for his defense and tenacity, Kennard for his three-point prowess — almost always as part of a bigger package to land a star.
But perhaps the most attractive Clippers trade asset is Terance Mann. The energetic second-year guard, who is under contract at $1.7 million next year with a player option in 2022-23, was a revelation off the bench this season, providing on-demand defense and rim-attacking while showing that he can hit big shots in big moments. Mann scored 39 points in Game 5 of the Western Conference semifinals just 48 hours after Leonard went out.
Indeed, Mann could be one of the biggest individual beneficiaries of the Clippers new reality, as he was destined to lose minutes coming off the bench behind Leonard, but now projects as a starter. Such a thing might simultaneously lessen the Clippers willingness to use him in a trade and raise their incentive to lock him into an extension now, in case the extra exposure makes him a more expensive re-signing in a couple years
Granted, a couple years is a ways away, but it might also be the next time the Clippers are competitive.
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